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The French Revolution, the Church and the Reign of Terror

The French Revolution was a chaotic, bloody, and incredibly complicated mess—for both the Church and the people of France. It may very well be the closest the Church has ever come to being annihilated.

French Society and the Causes of the Revolution

The system of French society at the time was called the Ancien Regime. It was divided into three estates—the clergy (0.5 per cent of the population, owning up to 30–40 per cent of land), nobility (about 1.5 per cent of the population), and the rest all belonged to the third estate (owning about 35 per cent of land).

The monarchy at the time consisted of King Louis XVI and his young queen, Marie Antionette, who was quite uninterested in political affairs.

Catholicism was the state religion, and it had a lot of influence, privilege, wealth, and land. It oversaw hospitals and education, enforced the status quo, and most of its higher-ups were nobility. Not only did the church take in tithes, but neither the first nor second estates paid many, if any, taxes at all. Protestantism in France had been forbidden since about 1685, so Catholicism was a monopoly in many respects.

You can already see some problems with this system. But these weren’t the key causes of the Revolution, though you could definitely argue that it enabled some of the larger problems. The larger problems are as follows:

  • Participation in the American Revolution had left France essentially bankrupt, having cost up to 1.3 billion livres alone. The Seven Years' War and the War of the Austrian Succession had also cost France another 2.8 billion livres. France had a pretty poor financial system already, so this really brought it down.

  • Lenders increased interest rates because of the higher risk in lending to France. So, in an attempt to save their dying economy, they placed taxes upon the Third Estate—taxes that were already disproportionately high compared to their income. This did little to flatten the curve, especially since the wealthy were out acting like nothing was wrong.

  • Louis didn’t really want to rule, and he wasn’t very decisive either. This kind of leadership was less than ideal for a kingdom in crisis.

  • The way the Estates-General was structured was also a contributor, as each estate only had one vote—which meant that the first two estates (accounting for 2–3 per cent of the population) could outvote the third estate.

  • There was tension between the bourgeoisie and the nobility. The bourgeoisie was basically the middle class—the more wealthy peasants. They would attain noble status by marrying a poor noble, which helped them both by making the noble wealthy. The tension was in the fact that a lot of nobles didn’t like the bourgeoisie entering their ranks, and the bourgeoisie knew about their attitude towards them.

  • The poorer people were starving and becoming restless. In 1789 alone, wages fell by 25 per cent and bread prices rose by 88 per cent because of poor harvests. Because bread was the staple food of the French, Bread Riots broke out.

  • You also had Enlightenment ideas coming into France, with its message of liberty, independent thought, religious tolerance, and questioning tradition. A lot of these ideas inspired Robespierre, who we’ll talk more about later.

To summarise, France was in a financial, political, and social/cultural crisis.

The Revolution and New Government

The two key events that really kicked off the Revolution were the Tennis Court Oath and the storming of the Bastille.

In 1789, King Louis called the Estates-General to address the national financial crisis. This was the legislative body consisting of representatives of the three estates. Representatives for the Third Estate wanted the other two estates to pay taxes. They also wanted to reform the governing system so that the votes were counted by heads rather than estates.

Louis felt threatened by their radicalism, so he locked them out of the meeting place, but they simply met in the tennis court next door and vowed to continue meeting until they had a new constitution.

This was the Tennis Court Oath and the birth of the National Assembly.

The next month, royal troops began to surround Paris. The people formed the national guard and fought back. They raided the military hospital for muskets, then they stormed the Bastille for gunpowder. The Bastille was a symbol of royal despotism and was taken apart brick by brick by the people. They brutally stabbed the governor of the Bastille to death, decapitating him and parading his head on a pike. Something similar would happen to the Bastille guards and the mayor of Paris.

The Bastille only housed seven prisoners at the time it was stormed, and they were released by the crowd.

The fact that the National Assembly did not rebuke this violence would probably be what encouraged the violence that followed—for example, the Women’s March on Versailles later that year that would capture and bring the monarchs as prisoners to Paris. There was also the Great Fear, involving peasant riots and violence, lasting through July and August. The new government created what would become known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

It was a statement of democratic principles grounded in Enlightenment ideas. It emphasised equal opportunity, liberty, popular sovereignty, private property, freedom of religion, etc.

The Declaration also meant that the Church no longer had a say in public matters. The Declaration was significant in its failure to replicate what the Americans had achieved in their Declaration. The First and Second Estate's privileges were abolished.

In 1790, the government dissolved the Concordat that had defined France’s relationship with the Pope since 1516. Monastic vows were suspended, monasteries were suppressed, tithe collection was abolished and properties were confiscated.

In an attempt to nationalise the church, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was also passed. It decreed that the priesthood was a civil body, so clergy had to be selected by the people and paid by the state. Clerics had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French Constitution, and dissidents were treated as enemies of the state and were forced to resign.

The number of bishops was also reduced from 135 to 83. This created a divide in the church between jurors (constitutional priests) and non-jurors (refractory priests). France moved from a Catholic constitutional monarchy to an atheist republic.

Understandably, the Pope condemned the Civil Constitution.


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